- Prevalence of Drug and Alcohol Addiction in America
- How to Know if Your Parent Has a Problem
- Your Parent’s Addiction is Not Your Fault
- Addiction’s Impact on Childhood
- Protecting Yourself and Getting Help
- How to Talk with Your Parent About Their Substance Abuse
- Seeking Treatment for Your Parent
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
Monica is 14 and lives in Pennsylvania with her parents and two younger siblings. Over the last 2 years, Monica’s mother has become addicted to alcohol and opioid painkillers. Her behavior has become erratic, and she often drinks until she passes out in the evening. Monica’s father also works long hours, so as the oldest sibling, she’s been forced to make meals and ensure that her brother and sister get to bed each evening.
Monica is also depressed and lives in constant fear of her mother. The mood swings and compulsive substance use have caused her mother to become aggressive and hostile. Monica feels helpless and longs for her younger years when her mother was sober and attentive to the needs of her children.
The above story is a fictional illustration of what children of addicted parents may experience. Many kids end up having to look after their addicted parent(s) while developing long-term emotional problems of their own. For kids who are dealing with substance abuse in the home, it’s important to realize that it is safe to talk about the issue and seek help.
Prevalence of Drug and Alcohol Addiction in America
Below are statistics based on combined data from the 2009 to 2014 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health:
- Roughly 1 in 8 children (8.7 million) aged 17 or younger lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder (SUD). SUDs are characterized by the recurrent use of alcohol or other drugs (or both) that results in significant impairment.
- Roughly 1 in 10 children (7.5 million) lived in households with at least one parent with a past-year alcohol use disorder.
- Roughly 1 in 35 children (2.1 million) lived in households with at least one parent with a past-year illicit drug use disorder.
How to Know if Your Parent Has a Problem
If your parent (or parents) enjoys having the occasional drink, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a problem. Socializing and drinking are a normal and healthy part of adult life. However, if you find that their substance use is getting out of control and you are feeling unsafe in your home, then they may need help.
In the initial stages, your parent’s substance use may not seem like a big issue. Over time, however, substance abuse can negatively affect other areas of their personal, professional, social, and financial life. They may lose jobs, friends, and money as their addiction takes hold. This can lead the parent to neglect their spouse/partner and children in physical and emotional ways.
Even if your parent’s substance use doesn’t seem to cause severe harm, it can leave you feeling unloved, abandoned, and unimportant. When substances take priority over a person’s life, nothing else will matter, and that can greatly affect their relationships with their family. If you feel like your parent is all-consumed by their substance use and is ignoring you or giving you a lot less attention, then they likely have a problem.
Living with a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can also be full of anxiety and uncertainty. You may worry about their safety, what mood they’ll be in, or whether they’re in danger after they’ve consumed a lot of substances. This can also force you into a parental role where you have to look after your inebriated parent and care for other younger children in the home.
If you can relate to the above and are feeling concerned about your parent’s substance use, remember that you’re not alone. What’s important is that you find help for yourself and your parent.
Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse
If you’re unsure about whether your parent has a substance abuse problem, there are some signs to watch out for. These include:
- Blackouts and memory loss.
- Irritability, mood swings, or angry outbursts.
- Excusing substance use and bad behavior.
- Prioritizing substance use over other obligations.
- Risky or reckless behavior such as driving while intoxicated.
- Isolation from friends and family.
- Increasing difficulties at work or with finances.
- Drinking alone or taking substances secretly.
- Frequent hangovers.
- Hiding alcohol or substances around the house.
- Being frequently intoxicated in public.
- Changes in appearance, behavior, and social circle.
Your Parent’s Addiction is Not Your Fault
Many children with addicted parents will blame themselves. They may wonder if they’ve done something wrong or if their behavior has led their parent to consume drugs or alcohol. They might even wonder if there is something they can do to stop their parent from using. This constant cycle of guilt and concern can lead many kids to start neglecting their own life in the hopes they can stop their parent from drinking or using drugs. The problem with this behavior is that it is not only unhealthy, but it also won’t stop their parent from using.
If your parent is addicted to substances, it’s important to realize that it is not your fault. You did not cause this situation. The reasons for addiction are complex, and often they are driven by underlying mental health issues such as trauma, depression, or anxiety. At the same time as acknowledging that your parent’s addiction is not your fault, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to talk about it and that you’re never alone. There is always help available.
Addiction’s Impact on Childhood
Life with an addicted parent can be lonely, scary, chaotic, and unpredictable. This is especially the case if the parent has mood swings or if they become aggressive and angry while they’re under the influence. Kids can become riddled with anxiety as they deal with a parent who is on top of the world one minute and then crushed under the weight of depression the next. Not knowing what mood their parent will be in and how long it will be until they consume drugs and/or alcohol again can be incredibly stressful.
According to Psychology Today, 1 in 5 children live in a home with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the trauma of witnessing a parent’s chronic inebriation has lasting and long-term effects. Some studies indicate that children who witness their parent’s addiction are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem of their own. The experience of living with an addicted parent creates great distress and can lead to other mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.
Other dangerous risks associated with addicted parents are neglect and abuse. Some parents become violent and emotionally aggressive as their addiction progresses, and they can also become neglectful when it comes to feeding, clothing, or schooling their children. This can cause a child to feel unsafe and unwanted, leading to deep feelings of unworthiness. As a result, some children may end up becoming withdrawn and shy while others become explosive and violent.
Protecting Yourself and Getting Help
If you are concerned about your parent’s substance abuse, it’s important to seek help. This is especially crucial if you are being abused or neglected. Below are several resources that you can use.
If you are unable to speak to either of your parents, try approaching friends or extended family. They may be able to protect you or temporarily remove you from the situation, especially if abuse is involved.
If friends and family aren’t an option, try speaking to someone at your school, such as a guidance counselor. Many schools have resources for children living with parental substance abuse and they may be able to refer you to social services or advise you on the next steps.
Mental Health Professionals
A mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist may also be able to help you cope with your feelings about your experience. They can also provide treatment for any mental health issues you’ve developed due to your parent’s addiction.
Modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon is the largest and most well-known support group for families of alcoholics. Al-Anon is based on a 12-Step program and this is designed to help families cope with their family member’s alcoholism.
Nar-Anon is like Al-Anon; however, it provides support for families whose lives have been affected by drug use. They also offer support for family members who have been impacted by alcoholism.
The internet is a valuable resource for websites and organizations that are dedicated to helping families afflicted by alcohol and drug abuse. While some are more helpful than others, it’s worth doing some research, as you can find resources and communities that can provide support.
How to Talk with Your Parent About Their Substance Abuse
While it’s good to be positive about approaching your parent to discuss their substance abuse problem, remember that you cannot force change. No matter how good your intentions are, you can’t force them to get help or stop their substance use. The best thing you can do is express your concern, show support, and help them explore their options.
Having a conversation can also be scary, especially if your parent is often defensive or angry. If safety is an issue, have someone with you in the room (whether it’s a family friend or another family member). Try where possible to go into the conversation with an open, non-judgmental attitude. If your parent feels like you are going to criticize them, they may clam up or become hostile. There are also a few things you can do to guide the conversation:
- Try to emphasize your concern, rather than convince them that they have a problem.
- Avoid having the conversation if they’re intoxicated.
- Emphasize that you’re having this conversation because you love them and are concerned for their well-being.
- Avoid general perspectives and keep it focused on how you feel (e.g., “I am concerned about your health…”)
- If you feel safe doing so, try to draw boundaries by explaining how you may have to move out if they don’t seek help (but do it in a way that describes how their behavior has impacted you without guilt-tripping them).
- Make sure the discussion is two-way by asking open questions so that they don’t feel cornered or attacked.
If the conversation isn’t successful and they’re adamant about getting help, you may need to seek professional help for staging an intervention.
Seeking Treatment for Your Parent
If your parent agrees to seek treatment, they will likely need to go to a detox center first. Some centers integrate detox into their treatment programs, so it’s worth doing research first. Depending on the severity of your parent’s addiction, numerous rehab options are available:
- Medical detox
- Residential/inpatient program
- Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
- Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
- Standard outpatient program
- Sober living
During rehab, your parents will also have access to various therapies for treating their addiction. These include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Trauma therapies (EMDR)
- Experiential therapies
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
National Association for Children of Addiction. (n.d.). Voice for the Children. nacoa.org. https://nacoa.org/families/just-4-kids.
Solis, J., Shadur, J., Burns, A., Hussong, A. (2012). Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 5(2), 135–147. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676900.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2017). Children Living with Parents Who Have a Substance Use Disorder. samhsa.gov. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3223/ShortReport-3223.html.
At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.
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